Uber may deliver marijuana in the future. Update on Credit Karma and Square

Uber’s business reportedly hit a stride in March. CEO hinted at the prospect of delivering marijuana

In a filing today, Uber revealed that it had an astonishing month in March 2021, when its Gross Bookings hit the highest level in the company’s history. Uber said that its annualized bookings for Mobility and Delivery hit $30 and $52 billion, respectively, last month. I have mixed feelings about this. At the first glance, the filing seems like a trove of good news for Uber as the figures imply that its two main business segments are firing on all cylinders. Uber’s total bookings in 2018 and 2019 were $50 and $65 billion, respectively. If the annualized numbers above are realized in 10 months’ time, that will be an impressive achievement for a company of this size, given that our societies spent more than one year in a historic pandemic.

But IF is the important word here. To be honest, I don’t really know how the annualization is calculated. Did they multiply the bookings in March by 12? Or did they multiply the bookings in the best week in March by 52? I may be ignorant not to understand the nuances in these languages, but if you invest your hard-earned cash into a company, it’s healthy to be a bit paranoid.

Another news that came from Uber is that its CEO hinted at the prospect of delivering marijuana.

“When federal laws come into play, we’re absolutely going to take a look at it,” 

Source: The Verge

Two months ago, I wrote about Uber’s acquisition of Drizly, the market leader in liquor delivery in the US. Chief among the benefits of acquiring Drizly for Uber are the proprietary technology that can verify IDs and the team that knows how to navigate the complex legal systems at the state and county levels. These capabilities will be tremendously helpful to Uber if they decide to delivery marijuana. Even in the states that allow the cannabis delivery, consumers still have to show that they are old enough; which is the perfect use case scenario for what Uber gets from Drizly. Right now, marijuana for recreational purposes is only legalized in a handful of states and is still illegal at the federal level. Some Democrats are pushing to change that and I think that it’s just a matter of time before the change takes place. Even if marijuana for fun is legal on the federal level, there will still be a lot of work to be done on the local level as each state will have a different mandate. In that case, having a team that knows how to deal with regulations from county to county on liquor delivery like Drizly will come in handy. The recreational legal cannabis market in the US is estimated to reach $27 billion by 2024. Estimates like this are usually optimistic, but even if half of that estimate checks out, it will increase Uber’s Total Addressable Market significantly.

Update on Credit Karma and Square

Last month, I wrote about Square’s acquisition of Credit Karma’s tax unit and potential benefits that the former can take from the latter

In essence, it benefits Square when customers have balance in their Cash App. The more balance there is, the more useful Cash App is to customers and the more revenue & profit Square can potentially earn. I imagine that once Credit Karma’s tax tool is integrated into Cash App, there will be a function that directs tax returns to customers’ Cash App. When the tax returns are deposited into Cash App, customers can either spend them; which either increases the ecosystem’s value (P2P), or deposit the fund back to their bank accounts. But if customers already direct the tax returns to Cash App in the first place, it’s unlikely the money will be redirected again back to a checking account. As Cash App users become more engaged and active, Square will look more attractive to prospect sellers whose business yield Square a much much higher gross margin than the company’s famous Cash App. 

Today, a user on Twitter noticed the new integration between Credit Karma and Square that would enable users to direct tax refunds straight to their Cash App account. Even though this is a logical move, how it will actually benefit Cash App remains to be seen as there hasn’t been any reporting on the overlap between Cash App and Credit Karma’s tax unit in terms of active users. Nonetheless, I look forward to seeing what Square brings to the market that stems from this acquisition.

Hydrogen fuel cell vs Battery Electric

As the calls to combat climate change become increasingly louder, the interest in an alternative to carbon-based energy heightens. Because our combustible engines used in daily commute emit a lot of carbon dioxide, finding a greener and more environmentally friendly option is believed by many to help us reduce the greenhouse gas. There are two main approaches to replacing gas in our vehicles: hydrogen fuel cell and lithium-ion batteries. I spent a few days reading up on this topic because I believe that it will be an important aspect of our lives moving forward and I was looking for a new investment opportunity. If you aren’t familiar with the topic, the clip below is a very great summary

Hydrogen fuel cells contain higher energy density and release energy on demand, instead of packing it all in a container like Lithium-ion batteries. Because of its higher energy density, hydrogen powers vehicles over a much longer distance than the current batteries can. If battery electric vehicles want to cover a longer distance, they have to be equipped with bigger and heavier batteries which, in turn, require more energy to be transported. A classic Catch-22 problem. Moreover, because hydrogen fuel cells use hydrogen stored in a separate tank and oxygen from the air to produce energy on demand, it’s much faster to charge than batteries. While battery electric vehicles (BEV) take like an hour to charge, fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) take as long as an ordinary trip to the gas station. Hence, if we’re just talking about energy density and time taken to charge a vehicle, FCEVs are clear winners.

However, the story isn’t that simple. The problems with FCEVs start upstream, before the fuel goes into the vehicles. Even though hydrogen is one of the most abundant elements, it doesn’t exist as a standalone. It takes energy to produce pure hydrogen, store it and transport it to where the end users are. Because there is a lot of inefficiency and work to be done to deliver hydrogen as fuel, the costs in hydrogen production are currently much higher than the costs required to produce Lithium-ion batteries. As a consequence, FCEVs are significantly more expensive than BEVs, rendering it a much smaller and less consumer-friendly market than BEVs. From a manufacturer point of view, that serves a roadblock to the economies of scale. But if they can’t achieve economies of scale, it’s not easier to lower the price of FCEVs. Another Catch-22.

Hydrogen fuel and Battery efficiency rate
Source: Greencarreports

Due to their potential contribution in our fight against climate change and superior efficiency over burning gasoline in a propulsion, battery and hydrogen fuel technologies have received increasing support from governments around the world in terms of subsidies, research grants and friendly regulations. This kind of support will help fine-tune the technologies, accelerate the adoption and make them more economically viable. I believe that they both have a place in our society in the near future. BEVs already have a leg up in scale over FCEVs. Proponents of BEVs such as Tesla or Volkswagen already achieve the scale they need to make their vehicles economically appealing to consumers. As demand grows, so will the scale; which will drive down the total cost of ownership of BEVs even more. Supporters of FCEVs such as Honda, Hyundai and Toyota still believe in the potential of hydrogen fuel in passenger cars, but they have to solve the problem of producing and transporting hydrogen. On the other hand, batteries’ low energy density, barring any technological advances in the future, make them virtually disqualified for large transportation means such as trucks or planes. Due to its high energy density, hydrogen fuel is more apt to use in trucks, cargos, ships, planes or other commercial cases. Microsoft already uses hydrogen fuel to power their data centers. Walmart and Amazon are two prominent clients of Plug Power, a major producer of hydrogen fuel turnkey solutions.

Even though batteries and hydrogen fuel can provide greener energy, their net contribution to our planet remains a question mark. As mentioned above, it takes a lot of energy to produce pure hydrogen and as of now, there is inefficiency from when hydrogen is produced to when it goes into a car’s tank. If a hydrogen producer burns natural gas such as methane to get pure hydrogen, the cost will be cheaper than other methods, but the process will be harmful to our environment. If hydrogen is produced by using electricity, especially electricity from renewable sources (sun, wind), to break down water into constituents (this method is called electrolysis), the environmental harm will be lower, but this method is more expensive. Plus, the most efficient method of electrolysis right now uses Platinum, which is not a cheap material and whose mining can be detrimental to our nature.

On the other hand, the downside of Lithium-ion battery, in addition to those mentioned above, is the extract of Lithium. The mining practice is controversial in some countries such as Bolivia and can leave a lasting impact since requires a lot of water to extract Lithium, as you can see below.

This field is developing fast and sophisticated that the more I read up on it, the more interested I am. By no means do I think that by just spending a few days on research, I became an expert. Not even close. I will continue to educate myself on this important avenue and hope that this is helpful to you and triggers your interest.

Cost of ownership of a 300-ton dump truck when using Diesel or Fuel Cells
Source: Hydrogen Council
cost of ownership of a heavy-duty truck when using Diesel or Fuel Cells
Source: Hydrogen Council
US operational cost for a bus breakdown (FCEV vs BEV)
Source: Deloitte
Current policy support for hydrogen deployment
Source: IEA.org

My experience with Amazon Shopper Panel

I wrote about Amazon Shopper Panel before. The program is on an invite-only basis. Essentially, participants upload 10 non-Amazon receipts (Whole Foods transactions aren’t counted either) every month to earn $10 in Amazon balance and have an opportunity to earn more by completing surveys. In my post, I wrote about the immense applications that can come from this initiative. This time, I want to update you with more details on the program. I myself received an invitation back in February 2021. If you are selected, you will receive an email like this

Amazon Shopper Panel Invitation
Figure 1 – Amazon Shopper Panel Invitation

The app is fairly simple. The first tab gives the user an overview of how much in rewards he or she has earned so far every month. The second tab is where receipts can be uploaded while the third tab houses all the surveys that Amazon wants you to complete. There are other routine sections such as FAQ, Contact Us, Legal Information and Sign Out that are tucked in a window that will open once you touch the three-dot symbol.

How Amazon Shopper Panel App Looks
Figure 2 – How Amazon Shopper Panel App Looks

Receipts can be uploaded via a phone camera. Based on my experience so far, the app is fairly receptive towards even wrinkled receipts and those that have small tears. Email receipts are qualified, as long as they are sent to receipts@panel.amazon.com from the same email that a participant uses to register an account. I got a car wash voucher from a dealership a while back and used it at a random fuel station in Omaha. The receipt from the car wash was still accepted, much to my surprise, because it didn’t have any card information. Since February 2021, I completed two surveys and received 25 cents for each. The surveys featured only one question each time and it was pretty basic such as, I paraphrase here, “where did you get information for your online purchases?”.

 Email receipts are accepted
Figure 3 – Email receipts are accepted
Even a car wash receipt without payment is accepted
Figure 4 – Even a car wash receipt without payment is accepted

Since starting to use the app, I have paid attention to how receipts differ from one another in terms of structure and layout. The computational process used to digest these receipt images will have to be pretty sophisticated to handle the intricacies and variety in how receipts are printed and captured. If Amazon can gain this ability to read images, it can be applied to other parts of their retail business.

Even if receipts are input by humans, the intelligence that Amazon may gain from this initiative will open up a lot of opportunities:

  • Design new private label products
  • Court other retail partners with unprecedented and reliable data
  • Support their ads business
  • Upsell current customers by understanding them better

My expectation is that Amazon will select enough folks from different backgrounds to join this effort. The participants have to be representative of consumers in America in terms of age, race, income and gender. Plus, the pool has to be big enough and the time period should be long enough so that the data can be statistically significant. As a result, at $10/participant/month, this initiative can reach 6 figures pretty fast. If the time and resources dedicated to the analysis task are factored, the expense will rise even higher. To other smaller retailers, the technical and financial barriers are not easy to overcome. To other retail giants like Walmart, I am surprised not to see a similar effort from them. This is the type of initiative where if your rival gains the first mover advantage, it will be a tall order to claw it back.

In life, there are skillsets which are very difficult to gain, but once mastered, can offer long-term leverage in various aspects of our life. Think: sales, writing, coding, human languages, cooking, fitness. In my opinion, this initiative belongs to the same category. If it proves to be successful, Amazon Shopper Panel can arm Amazon with intelligence and capabilities that are going to lift the company to even greater heights.

Disclosure: I have a position on Amazon and Walmart in my personal portfolio.

How do credit card issuers make money? What are the main types of credit cards? A quick look into the credit card world

Launching a credit card product is similar to putting together a jigsaw. There are many pieces: how to appeal to customers, which customers are an issuer’s likely target, what a good experience looks like, how an issuer can make money and how a card can compete with existing products on a market. In this post, I’ll go over my thoughts on the economics of a credit card, the main credit card types that I see on the market (excluding those debit cards that have credit card functions), the appeal of Apple Card and how different cards compare to one another.

Economics of a card

An issuer essentially generates revenue from three main sources with a credit card: interest payment when customers don’t pay off their balance, fees (late fee, annual fee, cash advance fee, balance transfer fee, foreign transaction fee and others) and interchange. Interchange is a small percentage of a transaction that a merchant pays to a card issuer whenever a customer uses a credit card to pay. The more spend is accrued, the more interchange issuers generate. Interchange rates are determined by networks such as Visa, Mastercard, Discover and American Express. The exact rates depend on a lot of factors: the industry or category that a merchant is in, what type of card (high end or normal) is being used, regulations (Europe imposes a limit on interchange rates, unlike the US) and how a customer uses the card to pay (swipe, chip, mobile wallet, online, phone..).

On average, some categories such as Airlines, Restaurants, Quick Restaurant Services, Hotels or Transportation have an interchange rate somewhere between 2% – 3%. Other categories such as Gas and Grocery, especially at Walmart, Target or Costco usually yield a very low interchange rate around 1% – 1.4%. Any credit card that offers higher than 3% in cash back in a category likely loses money on that category as the interchange cannot make up for the reward liabilities. Issuers are willing to offer 3-5% cash back, knowing that they lose money on that front, because they are banking on the assumption that the money that they make up from other sources will offset that loss. Specifically, they are likely to make money on categories with 1%. For instance, if you buy clothes or pay for a subscription online or buy something from a Shopify store, your card issuer is likely to make at least 1% in interchange, after they give you 1% in cash back. Additionally, issuers that offer a rich reward scheme usually impose an annual fee to offset the reward liabilities and the signing bonus that they use to acquire customers.

Hence, cards with no annual fee offer a cash back between 1.5 – 2%. They can’t afford to go higher than that because the maths would unlikely add up. Cards that have an annual fee often come with high rewards and a big bonus. While a big bonus can be an attractive tool to acquire customers, it incentivizes short-term purchase bursts and unintentionally attracts gamers, customers who receive the bonus, cash it out and either become a ghost, if they don’t have to pay an annual fee, or close out the card for good. There are a lot of gamers and gamers aren’t profitable to issuers. However, issuers still dole out a big bonus and attractive rewards because they think that there are customers that stay for a long term and can provide the interest income and fees that issuers need.

Three essential types of credit cards

I call the first type of cards the “Everyday Card”. Examples of this category include Blispay and Citi Double Cash Back. These cards offer a standard rewards rate on every purchase category (1.5% to 2%) with no annual fee. There is usually a 3% foreign transaction fee and there is no signing bonus. What makes Everyday Card appealing is that customers do not need to remember the complex rewards structure. They can just “set it and forget about it”. It earns them respectable rewards on every purchase, even at Walmart.

The second type of cards is the “No Annual Fee With Bonus”. Examples of this category are Discover It Cash Back, Freedom Unlimited or Freedom Flex. These cards’ highest reward rate is usually 5% on a certain pre-determined category that tends to yield a high interchange rate. In some cases, this 5% rate can rotate every quarter, keeping it interesting for customers and making them locked in if they want to activate a preferred category. There is a signing bonus for new customers. Some cards reward customers with a few hundred dollars in a statement credit if they spend a certain amount in the first 90 days. This mechanism is designed to make customers locked in early. The issuers bank on the assumption that once customers earn their signing bonus, they will stick around to keep those rewards points alive. However, it’s not uncommon for customers to cash out their rewards and become inactive afterwards. 

Discover’s signing bonus is designed to keep customers active during the first calendar year. They promise to match the cash back rewards at the end of the first year, but the bonus is a one-time occurrence and doesn’t repeat. This mechanism may keep customers active longer than what an outright statement credit does, but customers can always leave after the first year.

The last type of cards usually comes with an annual fee. Examples are Chase Sapphire Preferred or Bank of America Premium Rewards. Cards in this category come with a signing bonus after qualifying conditions are met and with a rich rewards structure. To offset expenses, issuers impose an annual fee. Customer acquisition may not be an issue with cards in this category, but will customers stay around after the signing bonus? Or are customers happy enough to pay a high annual fee every year? Also, these cards’ reward rate is high only in categories with higher interchange rate such as travel or dining. The rate is pretty light (1%) in other categories. While this approach appeals to a specific segment of customers, for customers that want “to set it and forget it”, does it still carry that same appeal though?

If you find credit cards complex and confusing, that’s normal because they are usually designed that way

Most credit cards can be pretty complex and confusing to customers. Let’s start with rewards. A tiered reward structure forces customers to mentally remember all the combinations of categories and rates. If customers have multiple cards in their wallet as they often do, it’s not an easy ask. Of course, there are folks that make a living in maximizing rewards, but that doesn’t work for the rest of us. In addition, it’s not always clear to customers how to categorize merchants. Merchants are categorized by Merchant Category Codes. These codes help issuers set up rewards and help networks determine interchange rates. MCCs are known in the banking industry, but to an ordinary customer, they don’t usually mean much. In some cases, issuers provide a list of qualifying merchants, but they can’t list all the available merchants and the practice is not ubiquitous.

Moreover, reward redemption can be a time-consuming process. Points or cash back earned in this cycle have to wait at least till the cycle ends before they are available for redemption. It can take longer in some cases, especially when it comes to signing bonuses. Here is a list of how long it takes for points to post at different issuers, compiled by Creditcards.com

 How long it takes to redeem the signing bonus?How long it takes to redeem spending rewards
Amex8-12 weeks after a customer hits the spending requirementWhen the current cycle ends
BofAAt the close of the billing cycle when the minimum spend is metWhen the current cycle ends
Capital OneWithin 2 cycles of when the spending requirement is metUp to 2 cycles
ChaseUp to 6-8 weeks after a customer hits the spending requirementWhen the current cycle ends
Citi8-10 weeks after a customer hits the spending requirementWhen the current cycle ends. With Citi Double Cash Back Card, it can take a bit longer if customers don’t pay in full
DiscoverWithin 2 cycles after a customer hits the spending requirementWhen the current cycle ends
US BankUp to 2 billing cycles after a customer hits the spending requirementWhen the current cycle ends
Wells FargoUp to 2 billing cycles after the qualifying period When the current cycle ends
Figure 1 – How long it takes issuers to let customers redeem rewards

The final point in rewards is that issuers tend to deceptively inflate the rewards by posting numbers in points, instead of dollars. Understandably, 100 points sounds much better than $1, even though they have the same value. Nonetheless, it creates an unnecessary level of complexity for customers to mentally convert points into cash, especially when the reward value is big.

Rewards aren’t the only source of frustration for credit card customers. Credit cards are essentially loans on which you may or may not have to pay interest. However, issuers hope that customers will incur interest and fees (as long as they don’t charge off). How often are fees prominently and clearly marketed as rewards? How often do you see in advance the potential interest payment if you don’t pay off your balance? Here is a study by Experian on the concerns that consumers have about credit cards

Consumer concerns about having a credit card
Figure 2 – Consumer concerns about a credit card

Apple Card is designed to do something different

Apple launched Apple Card in August 2019 in collaboration with Goldman Sachs. Customers can apply for an Apple Card right from the Wallet app, which is pre-loaded on an Apple device. The preloading is a significant advantage as customers don’t need to either load another bank app or search for a website and apply for a card. As soon as an application is approved, customers can use their Apple Card immediately either by holding your device near an NFC-enabled reader or paying online. With Apple Card, cardholders earn 3% cash back on purchases at Apple and strategic partners such as Exxon, T-Mobile, Walgreens, or Nike, 2% cash back on others purchases using Apple Pay and 1% cash back using the titanium physical card. The 2% cash back on other purchases can be appealing, but not every offline or online merchant allows Apple Pay.

The biggest selling points of Apple Card are transparency and simplicity. Take their no-fee structure as an example. There is no fee involved with Apple Card. No annual fee, no foreign transaction fee, no over-the-limit fee and no late fee. While Apple remains coy on cash advance fees, their special clientele may not use the mainly virtual Apple Card for this specific reason much. 

The simplicity also goes into their daily cash back. Typically, cash back earned through a credit card can take weeks to be registered and redeemed. Points or cash back earned this cycle must wait at least till the cycle ends before they are available for redemption. With Apple Card, cash back is earned daily in Apple Cash. As long as transactions are posted, customers can see the earned amount reflected in their Apple Cash. In real money term not in points. This takes away an unnecessary step for customers to mentally convert points into cash. Furthermore, Apple Cash can be used at any time, either in a person-to-person transaction, in a deposit back to a checking account or to pay back the outstanding balance in Apple Card. 

In terms of transparency, Apple Card tells customers how much interest they are paying when making a payment. And their APR is on par with other issuers’. In the Wallet app, customers can determine how much of the outstanding balance they want to pay. Depending on the amount, Apple will let customers know in advance their interest so that they can make an informed decision. It is in contrast to what almost all other issuers do. 

Apple Card's flexible interest rate
Figure 3 – A simulation to show interests on Apple Card varies based on how much a cardholder can pay.
Source: Apple

Apple Card only works with iOS devices and Apple Pay can be a challenge for elderly or less tech-savvy customers. Nonetheless, no card is perfect for everybody and the transparency and simplicity can teach us a lesson on how to craft a good customer experience. Despite being available only in the US and all restrictions above, Apple Card’s portfolio balance grew from $2 billion in March 2020 to $3 billion in September 2020 and roughly $4 billion at the end of 2020. Not bad for a portfolio with one card that is restricted to iOS devices. 

Annual fee or no annual fee? Appealing and complex or straightforward and simple?

A good practice in positioning is to use a 2×2 matrix. In this case, I’ll look at Apple Card and the three main credit cards mentioned above through whether they are easy to use and whether they have an annual fee.

Credit card positioning
Figure 4 – A 2×2 positioning matrix for credit cards

Let’s look at the positioning chart above. On the top right corner, we have an ultra-luxury card such as The Platinum Card from Amex. This card’s annual fee runs up to $550 and while rewards rate can range from 1x to 10x, it is not easy to remember all the details or to redeem rewards. On its left side, we have cards such as Capital One Venture and Chase Sapphire Preferred. These cards’ annual fee is $95, lower than the Platinum Card’s. Similarly, the complexity of cards such as Chase Sapphire Preferred is still high. Capital One Venture has 2x rewards rate on every purchase, making it less complex to use for some users, but it’s still time-consuming to redeem cash back. 

Moving further left, there is Capital One Quicksilver. This card’s annual fee stands at $39 and it offers 1.5x on every purchase. It’s in the middle of the spectrums. On the “no annual fee” side, we have two groups. The first group features cards such as Freedom Flex and Discover It Cash Back. These cards offer a 5x reward rate, but it rotates every quarter and to some customers, that can add some complexity. The other group features cards such as Citi Double Cash Back and FNBO Evergreen. These cards have no annual fee and offer 2x on every purchase. Nonetheless, they still have a complex fee structure and a reward redemption process that can be improved.

The point here is that it’s very competitive on the top half of the chart. All these cards have their own unique selling points that appeal to different customer segments. What they do have in common is that their fees and reward redemption are pretty complex.

On the other side of the x-axis, there are Apple Card and Upgrade Card. Even though it’s straightforward to use Apple Card as there is no fee and cash back is earned daily, the use of Apple Card depends much on whether customers have an iPhone and whether merchants enable Apple Pay. 40% of mobile users in the US don’t own an iPhone and as discussed above, older and less tech-savvy customers may not find Apple Pay comfortable. Without Apple Pay, the titanium card itself earns customers a paltry 1% cash back. 

Upgrade Card is a credit card issued by Sutton Bank, a medium sized bank in Ohio with $500 million in assets, and marketed by Upgrade. There is no fee with Upgrade Card. Here is what the company claims on its website

Not all traditional credit cards charge fees. However, creditcards.com’s 2020 Credit Card Fee Survey found that the average number of fees per card is 4.5. For example, the 2019 U.S. News Consumer Credit Card Fee Study found that the average annual fee (including cards with no annual fee) is $35.23, the average late fee is $36.34 and the average returned payment fee is $34. 01. The Upgrade Card charges none of these fees. Over 90 percent of cards charge balance transfer fees and cash advance fees. The Upgrade Card enables you to transfer cash from your Personal Credit Line to your bank account with no fees.

Source: Upgrade

With Upgrade Card, customers earn 1.5% cash back on all purchases as soon as customers pay off balance. The 1.5% cash back rate is lower than what Apple Card customers earn using Apple Pay, but on the other hand, Upgrade Card is device-agnostic and doesn’t rely on any mobile wallets. Hence, it is more accessible. However, Apple Pay allows customers to earn and use rewards daily while Upgrade Card only allows customers to redeem rewards after they make full payments.

According to the book The Anatomy of The Swipe, medium sized banks are essentially unregulated and can charge a higher interchange rate than big regulated banks. Hence, it’s very likely that Upgrade Card’s interchange rates are higher than those of cards issued by the likes of Chase or Capital One. The higher interchange rates can help offset rewards liabilities and generate revenue.

In fact, I am surprise to find no product like Upgrade Card from big banks. I suspect it would take a huge investment in infrastructure by legacy banks to offer the Daily Cash feature that Apple Card has. But legacy banks can essentially waive all fees like Upgrade Card does. While the likes of Chase, Discover or Capital One have more expenses than a smaller platform like Upgrade, they also have more popular brand names than Upgrade; something that would help tremendously in customer acquisition.

In summary, the credit card world is highly competitive. If an issuer follows the conventional way of launching a credit card, it will surely have a lot of competition and little to differentiate itself from competitors. In the upper half of Figure 4 above, I do think all the concepts and variations of rewards and economics have been tried. To be different, an issuer has to think differently and appeal to customers more with a superior customer experience (easy and simple to use) and less with complex features.

Thinking about Square’s acquisition of Credit Karma’s tax unit

Back in November 2020, Square announced its agreement to buy the tax unit of Credit Karma for $50 million in cash. Unlike Turbo Tax, which is infamous for slyly inducing tax filers to pay for its services, Credit Karma doesn’t charge users fees. Here is from the press release

Consistent with Square’s purpose of economic empowerment, Cash App plans to offer the free tax filing service to millions of Americans. The acquisition provides an opportunity to further digitize and simplify the tax filing process in the United States, expanding access to the one in three households which are unbanked or underbanked. The tax product will expand Cash App’s diverse ecosystem of financial tools — which currently includes peer-to-peer payments, Cash Card, direct deposit, as well as fractional investing in traditional stocks and bitcoin — giving customers another way to manage their finances from their pocket.

“We created Cash App to provide more access to the masses of people left out of the financial system and are constantly looking for ways to redefine our customers’ relationship with money by making it more relatable, instantly available, and universally accessible,” said Brian Grassadonia, Cash App Lead. “That’s why we’re thrilled to bring this easy-to-use tax product to customers as we continue to build out the suite of tools Cash App offers. With this acquisition, we believe Cash App will be able to ease customers’ burden of preparing taxes every year

Source: Square

There are several reasons why I think Square made a big splash on Credit Karma’s tax business.

Customer acquisition

In the same press release, Square claimed that 80 million people in America file taxes online every year, yet Credit Karma’s customer base is only 2 million. As of Q4 2020, Square’s Cash App monthly active user count stood at 36 million. Even if all Credit Karma’s current users are on Cash App and all active Cash App users file taxes online, by offering a decent free tax-filing service, Square can appeal to 44 more million tax payers in America at the top of the sales funnel. In the latest earnings call, Square disclosed that its Cash App user acquisition cost is less than $5 per user. At that rate, Square only needs from the acquisition of Credit Karma’s tax tool 10 million new users to break even on the $50 million in cash paid, let alone other benefits discussed later in this entry. Obviously, the conversion rate from being a tax filer to a Cash App user won’t be 100%, but a relationship to some extent with customers is still much better than no relationship at all. As of now, Paypal is Square’s arguably biggest rival with very similar offerings. However, Paypal doesn’t have an offering equal to what Credit Karma can offer to Square, yet. Perhaps, it can be a useful differentiator.

Customer retention

Engaged customers are often the more profitable customers. Filing taxes is, in most cases, a once-a-year activity for individuals. Given that Credit Karma is a free service and that Square essentially declares its intention to keep the service free, it won’t be a revenue center. Nonetheless, it doesn’t mean the new acquisition can’t help Square grow the top line. Here is how Square currently makes money with Cash App:

  • Whenever customers use Cash Card with Cash App to pay businesses for purchases, Square makes a small interchange fee
  • If customers want to expedite deposits to their bank accounts, there is a fee. If they can wait 2-3 business days, the deposits will be free
  • Customers are charged a fee when they make a P2P transaction using a credit card
  • Square imposes a small mark-up on Bitcoin’s price before selling it to customers through Cash App

In essence, it benefits Square when customers have balance in their Cash App. The more balance there is, the more useful Cash App is to customers and the more revenue & profit Square can potentially earn. I imagine that once Credit Karma’s tax tool is integrated into Cash App, there will be a function that directs tax returns to customers’ Cash App. When the tax returns are deposited into Cash App, customers can either spend them; which either increases the ecosystem’s value (P2P), or deposit the fund back to their bank accounts. But if customers already direct the tax returns to Cash App in the first place, it’s unlikely the money will be redirected again back to a checking account. As Cash App users become more engaged and active, Square will look more attractive to prospect sellers whose business yield Square a much much higher gross margin than the company’s famous Cash App.

Additionally, there is nothing that stops Square from giving customers immediate access to tax returns in exchange for a small fee. Tax returns, after being approved, only hit bank accounts after a few days. Square can entice customers to pay a small fee to access the money immediately in Cash App which they can use to invest or make payments. It’s a win-win for everybody.

Figure 1 – The more engaged customers are, the more valuable they are to Square. Source: Square
Figure 2 – Seller offers a much higher gross margin to Square than Cash App. Source: Square

A great source of data

With Credit Karma’s tax tool, Square can have access to a reliable source of demographic data such as age, location, status, income, education, reasons for tax credits and investing behavior. Individual tax filers don’t often try to deceive Uncle Sam in their tax forms. Hence, any information derived from tax filings through Credit Karma is accurate and can be very useful to Square in designing and offering new products. Last year, Square got approval from FDIC to open a bank in Utah and a few days ago, it announced that its industrial bank named Square Financial Services already began its operations. According to the press release, the bank will first focus on underwriting and original loans to existing Square Capital customers and potentially all sellers in the future.

Nonetheless, it won’t surprise me at all if Square’s bank ventures into consumer banking products such as mortgage, credit cards, savings or checking accounts in the future. If they do, information derived from tax forms will be very valuable. I am working for a bank now. We are often frustrated by the lack of demographic information on customers. When they apply for a credit card, sometimes they disclose their annual income, along with other basic information like age or street address, but that’s about it. After they enter our system, it’s almost impossible to receive updated information in their income, their status or other information that a tax form can reveal such as security trading, cryptocurrency trading or donations. What could possibly give a financial institution that kind of information accurately, reliably and regularly on an annual basis than a tax form?

In summary, I do think this is a good strategic acquisition by Square. Personally, I can see some useful applications that Credit Karma can offer and really look forward to how it actually pans out in the near future.

Disclosure: I have a position on Paypal

A Look At “Buy Now Pay Later”

“Buy Now Pay Later” (BNPL) lets consumers break down purchases into smaller installments, either for free or with a charge. Sounds familiar? BNPL isn’t a new concept. Your credit card is essentially the OG of BNPL. When you put a big purchase (like a mattress or a new smart TV) on your credit card, you can spread out the outstanding balance into smaller chunks over a few months. If you make prompt payments every cycle, there will be no finance charge or late fees. Otherwise, you’ll incur penalties which can be fairly expensive as credit cards’ APR is usually in the high teens or the 20s.

What is the difference between BNPL and credit cards then? While credit cards can be convenient, securing approval isn’t always easy, especially for low FICO customers. Even though possession of a credit card can boost one’s FICO in the long term, upon an application for a new card, consumers will likely receive a hard FICO pull which hurts their standing in the short term; the price that some customers are reluctant to pay. Furthermore, it can take a couple of weeks for consumers to receive their plastics. With BNPL, consumers can receive a decision from BNPL online in a few minutes and there is only a soft FICO pull that doesn’t hurt their credit standing in the short term. As Covid-19 forced businesses to move from brick-and-mortar to online and it placed significant financial constraints on consumers, it created a perfect environment for BNPL to thrive.

Who are the main players and what do they offer?

  • Afterpay is among the biggest BNPL lenders in the US. Hailing from Australia, the company only entered the US market in 2018. Remarkably, the US has quickly become the biggest contribution to the company’s revenue in only 3 years. Afterpay doesn’t charge interest. Consumers make the down payment at the time of the purchase and have to pay off balance in 6 weeks (a payment every 2 weeks) to avoid late fees.
  • Klarna is a Swedish startup that offers payment and financial services, including BNPL. It entered the US market in 2015. Klarna allows consumers to make interest-free installments within 30 days or 6 weeks. It also offers high-interest financing options that spread out payments in a longer term.
  • US consumers should be very familiar with Paypal. The company launched its BNPL offering last August. Paypal’s BNPL is similar to Afterpay’s, allowing consumers to break down purchases into 4 interest-free installments.
  • Affirm was founded by ex Paypal, Max Levchin in 2012. Its model is slightly different from other BNPL lenders’ in a sense that Affirm doesn’t charge consumers usage or late fees. Payment options include monthly interest-free installments in 3 months or installments with interest over a longer period.

These startups have played an important role in popularizing BNPL. Now, banks joined the party. Amex launched its BNPL a couple of years ago, but on a fairly limited basis. Since then, it has opened it up to more customers. Chase also introduced its own version called “My Chase Plan”. These banks let consumers make interest-free installments with a monthly fee equal to a percentage of the purchase’s amount. This gives borrowers incentive to pay off their balance as soon as possible, because the longer the plan is, the more fee they will have to pay. Amex even lets its customers combine multiple purchases into one BNPL plan. Unlike startup BNPL providers, these banks impose a minimum requirement of $100 per purchase, along with other criteria, to ensure that customers aren’t overextended.

 InterestInstallment FrequencyFee to use BNPLLate fees
After Pay0%Every 2 weeksNoneYes
Affirm0% – 30%Monthly, up to 12 monthsNoneNone
Amex0%Every month% of each eligible plan’s total amount. Yes
Chase0%Every month between 3-18 months% of each eligible plan’s total amount.Yes
Klarna0% – 19.99%Every 2 weeks or in 30 days for 0%Every month up to 36 months with APRNoneYes
Paypal0%Every 2 weeksNoneYes
Quadpay0%Every 2 weeksNoneYes
 AmexChase
How many plans can an account have?10 active plans at a time10 active or pending plans at a time
Minimum purchase requirement$100$100
Penalties for paying off plans earlyNoNo
Rewards on BNPL purchasesYesYes
Are refunds/returns automatically applied to an account’s balance?No, customers must call the issuerNo, customers must call the issuer
Can authorized users set up plans?Only card owners or Authorized Account Managers with Full Access can set up a planOnly card owners can set up a plan

What do merchants and consumers get from BNPL?

For shoppers, BNPL lets them spread out a big purchase into smaller interest-free installments quickly and without a credit card. As mentioned above, the convenience and speed that BNPL brings are even more attractive during Covid-19, especially to younger shoppers who may not build their credit yet or may not have a credit card. Klarna and Afterpay claimed that 90% of their transactions were with debit cards, and 72% of those customers had enough balance on their checking account to cover 2-5x the purchase amount. To lock in customers, BNPL providers such as Klarna and Afterpay launched loyalty programs respectively with additional benefits for their most engaged customers. Klarna’s rewards program Vibe was launched first in the US in June 2020. The no-fee program allows customers to earn 1 point for every dollar spent. The points can be later redeemed for gift cards. Klarna reported that the program exceeded more than 1 million members. On the other hand, Afterpay’s loyalty program Pulse offers a different set of benefits. Registered members in the program can opt to pay nothing up front, choose to reschedule up to 6 payment dates and buy Afterpay gift cards. With Amex and Chase, shoppers accrue points to their bank rewards accounts and can be redeemed later.

However, there are risks for consumers when using BNPL services. A study found that many shoppers incurred late fees, not because they couldn’t make payments financially, but because they lost track of their payment schedule. While this prospect is real, BNPL providers are taking steps to make it easier for shoppers to pay on time. Klarna lets customers set up automatic payments and send out notifications. In the long term, it will be better for BNPL providers to rely too much on late fees. The second risk lies in the consumer protection or lack thereof and the difficulty when it comes to refunds/returns. Credit card issuers have to stop payments when they are disputed. With other BNPL providers, consumers first have to contact sellers, get credit and then proceed to the next steps with the lenders and the outcome is less guaranteed.

From a merchant’s perspective, BNPL brings more customers as the service providers spend a lot of money on marketing and user acquisition. Regardless of whether borrowers make payments on time, merchants get paid in full up front and they don’t have to bear the risk of chargebacks or fraud. In return, though, merchants have to relinquish a fee for each transaction to BNPL providers that can be multiple times higher than what they usually pay in interchange. Plus, merchants risk losing their relationship with customers. I wrote about the importance of owning your relation with your customers. If shoppers feel more attached to BNPL providers than merchants, in the same way shoppers feel more attached to Amazon than the sellers on Amazon’s website, merchants run a risk of losing bargaining power.

BNPL adoption

Because it brings flexibility in payments, BNPL became a hit with shoppers in 2020. Klarna reported that at the end of 2020, it had 14 million registered consumers, 3.5 million monthly active users and 60,000 downloads in December 2020 alone. As of Feb 2021, Affirm had about 4.5 million users that had at least one transaction in the last 12 months, up from 3 million users from one year prior, an increase of 50% YoY. Likewise, Afterpay had 8 million active users as of Feb 2021, up from 5.6 million in June 2020, and the US is now its biggest market. Paypal introduced its “Pay in 4” product in the US market in August 2020 and said that it was the company’s most successful launch ever. 

The rise of BNPL also benefits merchants. In December 2020 alone, Klarna drove 22 million lead referrals to more than 6,000 US retailers. Reportedly, Sephora’s in-store and online orders through Klarna in the US saw an increase in average order value by 65% and 35% respectively. Additionally, Afterpay delivered 45 million lead referrals to its partners globally in December 2020. As the US is Afterpay’s biggest segment and the world’s biggest retail market, it likely made up more than half of those referrals. Over the last 12 months, Afterpay reported a 141% increase in the number of active merchants in the US, from 7,400 in Dec 2019 to almost 18,000 in Dec 2020. Furthermore, Affirmgrew its merchant network by 39% during the last 6 months of 2020, to almost 8,000. 

According to the latest Global Payment Reports by FIS, BNPL will make up 4.5% of North America’s eCommerce in 2024, up from 1.6% in 2020. 

How do BNPL providers make money?

For providers that have an option to charge interest up front like Affirm, interest income can be a significant source of revenue. In fact, it’s Affirm’s second biggest revenue stream. Late fees can be another stream, though, as I already mentioned, they should constitute a small percentage of a provider’s income. Afterpay’s late fee only makes up 7% of the company’s revenue. Most of these providers make money from a fee that merchants have to pay them on every transaction. This fee helps BNPL providers offset the cost of fund placed on the balance allocated to shoppers, the interchange fee that these providers later have to pay to card issuers when shoppers make payments and operating expenses. As BNPL lenders become more popular, I suspect they will eventually launch advertising services whose revenue is high margin, compared to their current margin structure. For banks such as Amex and Chase, a minimum purchase requirement of $100+ means a higher interchange revenue. Plus, they charge customers a monthly fee to use their BNPL service. On the other hand, banks have to incur more expenses as they are much more regulated.

In short, BNPL is a trend born out of unaddressed needs of consumers and accelerated by a special market environment (Covid-19). It’s similar to something that once you saw, you can’t unsee. Once consumers experience it and come to like it, as evidenced by the rapid growth of BNPL providers, I don’t see how it will go away in the future. It will be interesting to see 1/ how these providers work to be more efficient, grow their machine learning capabilities so that they can minimize their losses, and acquire users and 2/ how lawmakers catch up to what’s going on in the market and what ramifications potentially new laws would bring.

Take-aways From Berkshire Hathaway 2020 Shareholder Letters

Shareholder letters, when written well, are a great source of knowledge, wisdom and interesting things. Berkshire Hathaway’s is one of those letters. Today, the company, which is based in Omaha where I currently reside, published its 2020 letter. I read it with a hot cup of coffee and pleasure, and now I want to share my take-aways in this post. You can read the letter in full here

You don’t always win every year, but being patient and having a long-term horizon matters

On the second page of the letter, readers can see the annual and compounded return of Berkshire Hathaway for the last 55 years. The firm didn’t always have a positive return every year. Far from it. It fluctuated greatly from one year to the next, from 28% return this year to -32% the following year. If these professional capital allocators who have more years of investing than my years of living don’t have a positive return every year, I think I shouldn’t set that bar for myself or neither should you. The main thing is that Berkshire had a compounded annual return of 20% in the last 55 years, meaning that the overall gain is some 2.8 million percent, a ridiculous return. Everyone prefers getting rich fast, but in the long term, it is likely better to be patient and have a long term horizon. The results will come, if you do it right.

Having an investing philosophy

Once in a while, I ran across some FinTwit folks who questioned the wisdom of holding large cap stocks such as Apple or Amazon. You know, the familiar big names across industries. These people claimed that to earn an outsized return, investors should look somewhere else where the fish isn’t fished as often. That may be true, but in the age of information, it’s really hard to get information that others can’t. What is harder to possess is patience and willingness to adopt a long term horizon. Back to Berkshire Hathaway, the company said that its Apple position was likely its 2nd most important asset. I mean, if these people upon whom thousands of investors entrust their savings choose Apple and earn excellent returns, why shouldn’t anyone, provided that they did their homework?

Berkshire’s investment in Apple vividly illustrates the power of repurchases. We began buying Apple stock late in 2016 and by early July 2018, owned slightly more than one billion Apple shares (split-adjusted). Saying that, I’m referencing the investment held in Berkshire’s general account and am excluding a very small and separately-managed holding of Apple shares that was subsequently sold. When we finished our purchases in mid-2018, Berkshire’s general account owned 5.2% of Apple.

Our cost for that stake was $36 billion. Since then, we have both enjoyed regular dividends, averaging about $775 million annually, and have also – in 2020 – pocketed an additional $11 billion by selling a small portion of our position.

Despite that sale – voila! – Berkshire now owns 5.4% of Apple. That increase was costless to us, coming about because Apple has continuously repurchased its shares, thereby substantially shrinking the number it now has outstanding.

To Charlie and Warren, I think they don’t care about being a contrarian like so many aspire to be. What they want to be is to be right with their allocation of capital, as it is their fiduciary duty to shareholders. If we can get excellent returns, will it matter if those returns come from a tech giant or a company few heard of? Nah. So if you are only comfortable with the companies you know, don’t listen to the “advisors” who seem to be more eager to be “contrarian” (whatever that means) than to be right.

On page 4 of the letter, Warren and Charlie laid out their investment philosophy. They prefer owning a piece of a great business to 100% of that business. Their reasoning is that great businesses are rarely available for the taking, and even if they are, they will be greatly expensive. Owning a piece of a great business is cheaper, more profitable and cheaper. Berkshire Hathaway’s favorite companies are good to great businesses with a competent leadership that retain most of their annual earnings. As the investees grow their businesses over time, Berkshire’s ownership becomes more valuable. Over a long period of time, the growth in value will be aided by the 8th wonder of the world, compound interest. It may sound easy, but it isn’t. Identifying great businesses to buy is a challenge in and of itself. Sitting on those investments patient for a long period of time is not an easy task either.

What’s out of sight, however, should not be out of mind: Those unrecorded retained earnings are usually building value – lots of value – for Berkshire. Investees use the withheld funds to expand their business, make acquisitions, pay off debt and, often, to repurchase their stock (an act that increases our share of their future earnings). As we pointed out in these pages last year, retained earnings have propelled American business throughout our country’s history. What worked for Carnegie and Rockefeller has, over the years, worked its magic for millions of shareholders as well.

Admittedly, I learned a lot from Charlie and Warren in terms of investing. I try to read up as much as possible about a business and if I like what I read, I buy the stock and try not to sell it. The decision not to sell isn’t driven by my financial determination that a stock has more upside to go. That piece, I still have to learn, even though I don’t find it easy. Instead, my choice to keep stocks over time is mainly driven by my laziness. I don’t want to get up every day and day trade. Plus, I believe that once I own a piece, a very small piece of a great business, it will be more beneficial to keep the ownership as long as possible. A lesson from the two wise old men.

Work ethic

Charlie is now 97 years old and Warren is 90 years old. They are still actively managing their firm, making investment decisions and interacting with shareholders, either through letters like this or a meeting. In the letter, they talked about the story of Nebraska Furniture Mart and its founder, Mrs B, which is one of my favorite business stories:

The company’s founder, Rose Blumkin (“Mrs. B”), arrived in Seattle in 1915 as a Russian emigrant, unable to read or speak English. She settled in Omaha several years later and by 1936 had saved $2,500 with which to start a furniture store. Competitors and suppliers ignored her, and for a time their judgment seemed correct: World War II stalled her business, and at yearend 1946, the company’s net worth had grown to only $72,264. Cash, both in the till and on deposit, totaled $50 (that’s not a typo).

One invaluable asset, however, went unrecorded in the 1946 figures: Louie Blumkin, Mrs. B’s only son, had rejoined the store after four years in the U.S. Army. Louie fought at Normandy’s Omaha Beach following the D-Day invasion, earned a Purple Heart for injuries sustained in the Battle of the Bulge, and finally sailed home in November 1945. Once Mrs. B and Louie were reunited, there was no stopping NFM. Driven by their dream, mother and son worked days, nights and weekends. The result was a retailing miracle.

By 1983, the pair had created a business worth $60 million. That year, on my birthday, Berkshire purchased 80% of NFM, again without an audit. I counted on Blumkin family members to run the business; the third and fourth generation do so today. Mrs. B, it should be noted, worked daily until she was 103 – a ridiculously premature retirement age as judged by Charlie and me.

Mrs B worked daily till she was 103. Charlie and Warren are in their 90s and still working. I mean, I find it inspiring. Sometimes, I feel old whenever I think about the time when I was 16, even though I am just approaching 31. But these great examples remind me that I still have a few decades to work and enjoy life. Such a reminder can be hugely valuable.

A look at Uber after it acquired Postmates and Drizly

Compared to 2 or 3 years ago, Uber is a much more focused company nowadays. Instead of stretching itself thin across the globe, losing money significantly in many markets and fighting legal battles everywhere, Uber is now present in only markets where it’s among the market leaders. In addition to selling its operations in a few markets like South East Asia, China and Russia to local rivals, Uber purposefully exited other markets that it deemed not worth fighting for. Plus, it sold operations that might have future potential, but was bleeding cash such as autonomous vehicles. I mean, innovation can be sexy and as a tech company, Uber may be tempted to pursue that, but because it hasn’t made profit as a company, it’s understandable that Uber tries to focus on what matters: Mobility, Delivery and the markets where it is confident it can generate meaningful revenue and profit.

Uber's Mobility Footprint
Figure 1 – Uber’s Mobility Footprint. Source: Uber
Uber's Delivery footprint
Figure 2 – Uber’s Delivery Footprint. Source: Uber

Mobility used to be a much bigger business than Delivery, but Covid-19 turned things upside down. Delivery has grown substantially in the past year and been the savior of a business whose major cash cow was badly damaged by the pandemic. Delivery’s gross bookings in Q4 2020 exceeded $10 billion, compared to $6.8 billion in gross bookings for Mobility. If we look at the rolling 4-quarter average gross bookings, Delivery surpassed Mobility in Q4 2020, but of course, it’s likely that once we get back to normal, Mobility will regain its crown. Deliver has seen its take-rate grow steadily since Q4 2018 to reach 13.7% in Q4 2020 and is now not so far off the long-term target of 15%. Furthermore, while Mobility has been profitable, Delivery hasn’t. The good news for Uber is that it is achieving increasingly positive operating leverage in Delivery. While its Delivery net revenue has grown fast, its adjusted EBITDA has also gone in the right direction. If Uber can make true of its plan to be adjusted EBITDA positive in 2021, it likely means that we’ll see a profitable Delivery in 2021 as well; which already happened in 15 markets.

Uber's Delivery has been on fire
Figure 3 – Delivery has been on fire in 2020
Uber's take-rate
Figure 4 – Deliver take-rate has been on the rise and is not far off the long -term target
Uber's EBITDA
Figure 5 – Delivery EBITDA is getting better and better
Uber's long term goals
Figure 6 – Uber saw profitability for Delivery in 15 markets and an improved economics in others

Uber’s main four stakeholders are end users, partners (whether they are mom-pop restaurants, well-known chains or grocery stores), drivers/deliver people and lawmakers. Lawmakers have an influential role in Uber’s future as the laws they make can have major impact on Uber’s top and bottom line. But for this section, let’s just talk about the other three.

The way I think about Uber as a business is that it connects end users, partners and drivers altogether. The more end users Uber can present to its partners, the more partners it is likely going to sign. In turn, that means Uber’s end users can have a bigger selection at their finger tips, raising Uber’s value proposition. On the other hand, a bigger end-user pool helps the company sign up drivers. Drivers have limited resources in their vehicles and time, as even the most dedicated drivers can’t drive for more than 24 hours a day. Nobody wants to drive around needlessly all day without getting paid while having to pay for vehicle expenses and gas. As a result, the more business opportunity Uber can bring to drivers, helping them better leverage their time and resources, the more drivers will sign up. When it comes to making more trips and money, do drivers care if it’s a parcel or a person that needs transporting? In return, more drivers lead to faster “delivery” (transportation of an object from one place to another), whether it’s the delivery of a person or an item. Faster delivery means that customers will be happy and stick around using Uber more. In short, it’s an intricate multi-party relationship that Uber has to manage. It’s not easy or cheap to begin with, but once Uber sets these flywheels into motion, they can gain lasting competitive advantages. For example, at the end of Q4 2020, Uber recorded 675,000 active merchants, up from 450,000 in Jan 2020. It’s unclear whether this 675,000 figure includes the 100,000 partnered merchants that Uber inherits from its acquisition of Postmates. Meanwhile, Grocery Gross Booking exceeded $1.5 billion annualized run-rate. These numbers indicate a growing ecosystem.

My understanding of Uber flywheel
Figure 7 – My attempt at creating flywheels for Uber

So how does Uber make money? In short, from all three stakeholders: customers, partners and drivers. Here is what Uber said in its latest SEC filing back in Q3 2020:

Mobility Revenue

We derive revenue primarily from fees paid by Mobility Drivers for the use of our platform(s) and related service to facilitate and complete Mobility services and, in certain markets, revenue from fees paid by end-users for connection services obtained via the platform. Mobility revenue also includes immaterial revenue streams such as our Uber for Business (“U4B”), financial partnerships products and Vehicle Solutions. Vehicle Solutions revenue is accounted for as an operating lease as defined under ASC 842.

Delivery Revenue

We derive revenue for Delivery from Merchants’ and Delivery People’s use of the Delivery platform and related service to facilitate and complete Delivery transactions. Additionally, in certain markets where we are responsible for delivery services, delivery fees charged to end-users are also included in revenue, while payments to Delivery People in exchange for delivery services are recognized in cost of revenue.

Source: Uber

On the Mobility side, Uber takes a cut from bookings (around 20-25%) paid by customers before transferring the rest to drivers. On the Delivery side, it makes money from everybody involved in an order. After paying a one-time set-up fee of $350, restaurants have to pay Uber 15% or 30% commission on every order, depending on what delivery method they choose. If they user Uber for the delivery, the commission rate is 30%. If restaurants use other delivery methods, it falls to 15%. With regard to drivers, drivers receive a fixed fee for picking up and dropping off items and a variable rate based on the distance they cover. From the end-user perspectives, there are more than one fee involved in every order. According to Uber:

– Delivery Fee: Delivery fees vary for each restaurant based on your location and availability of nearby delivery people. You’ll always know the delivery fee before selecting a restaurant.

-Service Fee: Service fees equal 15% of your order’s subtotal, subject to a minimum of $2. The fee does not apply to restaurants that deliver their own orders.

– Small order fee: Small order fees apply when an order’s subtotal is less than a certain amount. This varies by city, but is either $2 for subtotals less than $10 or $3 for subtotals less than $15. You can remove the fee by adding more items.

– Delivery adjustment fee: A delivery adjustment fee refers to an update you made after placing your order- like changing your address. It helps to pay your delivery person for extra time and effort.

Source: Uber

In short, if there is no delivery adjustment and orders are above the small order threshold, Uber typically can take at least 15% of the order from merchants and delivery fees from end users which Uber doesn’t share with drivers. If merchants don’t have in-house delivery workforce, Uber can earn more from both ends of the transaction with 30% coming from the merchants and service & delivery fees coming from end users. Mom-and-Pop merchants whose limited resources don’t allow them to retain on the books a delivery team represent a more lucrative segment to Uber. During the pandemic when delivery is a trend, these merchants may not have a choice, but to partner with the likes of Uber. The question is: what will happen when seated dining resumes? How will that affect Uber’s Delivery business?

In Q4 2020, Uber closed the acquisition of Postmates. Similar to Uber, Postmates charges merchants at least 15% on every order and its fee structure imposed on end users is, in principles, similar to Uber’s. What Postmates offers to Uber is less competition, access to Postmates’ footprint and the deliver-as-a-service capability. Instead of building the infrastructure and signing merchants from scratch, Uber can quickly snap up what Postmates has and build from there.

With Postmates, we bolstered our local commerce capability through their delivery-as-a-service offering that already counts Walmart, Apple and 7-Eleven as customers. In December, delivery-as-a-service, represented 18% of Postmates orders, and we intend to scale this out further along with our Uber Direct product.

Source: Uber’s Q4 2020 Earnings Call – From Koyfin
Uber Direct
Figure 8 – Uber’s Delivery-as-a-Service Portfolio. Source: Uber

In Feb 2021, Uber announced its acquisition of Drizly for $1.1 billion in stock and cash. I think it’s a smart acquisition on Uber’s part. Let’s look at it together. Drizly was founded in 2012 when their founders realized the complexity of alcohol distribution in the US could present a golden business opportunity. Liquor distribution in the US mainly follows the three tier system and can be pretty fragmented and complex. In short, liquor producers or importers can only sell to wholesale distributors which, in turn, can only sell to retailers who, with a liquor license, can sell to end users. There are exceptions across the states and can vary even from county to county. Added to the complexity are the restrictions on alcohol delivery. Some states allow delivery of liquor, beer and wine. Others restrict delivery to only beer and/or wine while a few prohibit delivery of alcohol altogether.

Alcohol delivery restrictions across the states
Source: Consumer Choice Center

How does Drizly make money? Drizly works with local retailers that wish to sell alcohol to consumers and charges these retailers a fixed monthly fee for the privilege. In return, retailers receive two things: marketing and an age-verification technology. Local retailers, especially smaller ones, don’t have the coins to spend on marketing nor do they have the ability to verify the legal age of buyers during the transaction. Hence, these retailers could face a huge legal liability if things went wrong and they were caught selling alcohol to whomever they shouldn’t have. Drizly offers retailers its proprietary technology to verify IDs to ensure buyers are who they said they are. Furthermore, Drizly charges consumers roughly $7 on each transaction, including a Delivery Fee of around $5 and $1.99 Service Fee. It’s important to note that retailers are responsible for the delivery task. What it means is that Drizly never takes possession of the alcohol during the transactions and therefore, doesn’t have to get a permit. By avoiding the expensive delivery business, Drizly can focus on what it does best: navigating the complex legalities, connecting merchants and consumers and marketing. On the merchant side, they are free to set up their own prices on Drizly marketplace and do not have to relinquish a cut of the sales to the company. The more alcohol Drizly can help them sell, the cheaper that monthly fixed fee becomes and the more likely retailers can negotiate a better term with distributors.

First of all, by acquiring Drizly, Uber gains access to a profitable and growing business. According to Uber, Drizly is growing at 300% YoY and already profitable on an EBITDA basis. I suspect that once we get out of this pandemic, consumers will be more aware of the prospect of alcohol delivery. Hence, Drizly will likely continue to see growth in the future, albeit perhaps not on the level that it saw in 2020. Furthermore, Drizly is a boon to Uber’s target of becoming profitable in 2021. Not only is the acquired profitable itself, but Drizly’s monthly revenue from retailers presents a much higher gross margin than Uber’s main businesses.

Second, Uber acquires a team that knows how to navigate the legal challenges in the alcohol market and an ID verification technology. Uber is well-versed in dealing with local authorities itself, but transportation is a different beast from alcohol delivery. With Drizly, Uber won’t have to start from scratch and will be able to stimulate Drizly’s growth with its much more sizable pocket.

Third, snapping up a market leader like Drizly prevents it from falling into the hands of Uber’s competitors. It’s a pre-emptive strike. Once the integration of Drizly into Uber’s platform is completed, Uber users can order the transportation of themselves (Mobility), food, groceries, parcels and alcohol all under one app. Uber’s competitors can match its offerings to some extent, but none can offer the same breadth of services like Uber, now that it adds alcohol delivery to the mix. To be able to do what Drizly does is not an easy feat, but to Uber, it’s adding to their competitive advantages.

Fourth, Uber has an advertising business that Deutsche Bank estimates to earn $1 billion in 2024. With the integration of Drizly, Uber adds to the potential clientele of advertisers and more data generated by Drizly’s marketplace.

In short, this is a great marriage between Drizly and Uber. Uber offers the smaller app its experience in building a marketplace, more financial resources, a much bigger brand name and especially marketing reach which is important to Drizly’s merchants. On the other hand, Drizly gives Uber a growing & profitable business, as well as access to a highly regulated business that is challenging to replicate.

Uber’s ambition to become a Super App has been obvious for a while. What should be encouraging news to investors is that it restructures itself to be more focused, exiting cash-bleeding businesses and unprofitable markets, and is willing to invest in its vision with the acquisition of Postmates & Drizly serving as proof. Of course, nobody can say with 100% certainty that these acquisitions will work out in the future, but in theory, I personally think that they make sense and are important pieces of a growing jigsaw.

Disclosure: I have a position on Uber.

Owning the relationship with your customers. A look at the controversial case of Apple

Humans form relationships with one another. Between two people, a relationship is only strong when each side benefits from it and strives to strengthen the bond over time. If a friend betrays you or harms you, there likely won’t be a friendship any more, right? Once a relationship is formed, the stronger it is, the less it is less effected by others and the more trust there is. If a romantic relationship between you and your boyfriend/girlfriend is strong, you are less likely to be swayed by the opinion of your friends or family. And the people with whom you have the best relationship are the folks you trust the most.

Why do I need to state such an obvious observation? Because it is the same deal between companies and customers.

Relationship between companies and customers

When there is a transaction between a customer and a company, the two parties form a relationship. However and whether the relationship lasts depends on many factors: Is the customer happy? Is the company happy? Are there efforts involved to strengthen the relationship over time? Is there trust? A company like Amazon gains the trust of its customers through Prime & an increasing host of benefits, a variety of choices, quick delivery, easy return and consistency. From Amazon perspective, they have been investing a lot of time, effort and money into cultivating the relationship with its customers. In return, customers like and trust them. Millions of people shop at Amazon. Many, by default, head to the site to look for products. Such a relationship is so strong that it’s not much affected by 3rd parties or suppliers that depend on Amazon. They don’t form much of a bond with customers or the bond isn’t as strong as Amazon’s. The same goes with governments. Consumers, especially in America, don’t usually have the greatest of relationships with governments. Hence, it’s not a high bar to cross for Amazon in this regard. Additionally, because there is trust and a great relationship, Amazon customers stay loyal and locked in (intentionally or unintentionally through Prime), saving the company some trouble from competitors in the retail industry.

I picked Amazon because it’s a household name and an easy example. But the logic applies to every company. I drew a little diagram below. Inside the blue bubble that stands for a relationship, two parties work to build it over time. Outside the bubble, there are factors that can influence it. The stronger the relationship/bubble, the smaller the potential influence. Companies lose competitive advantages because the relationship isn’t as strong any more. Kodak didn’t offer consumers the benefits that digital cameras did; therefore, their relationship was strayed, paving the way for their demise. Nokia had nothing but inferior products and customer experience to offer. That’s why they lost the relationship to other phone manufacturers like Apple or Samsung. Barnes and Nobles lost the relationship to Amazon in the same way.

Imagine that your best friend or spouse is an executive at a company with an opening and an acquaintance reached out to your for help with an introduction. Under normal circumstances like (99% of the time!), however you make the introduction or whether you choose to make it at all is up to you. That is because within the relationship between you and the executive, the two parties determine the rules and whoever wants to leverage it has to respect and follow them. Think about it this way. Advertisers who want to reach Facebook users have to comply with Facebook guidelines. Apps that want to reach Apple users have to comply with Apple. Brands that want to sell to Walmart’s customers in Walmart’s stores, you guess it, have to comply with Walmart. The farther away from customers and the weaker a relationship, the less say a company has on its fate and the more it has to rely on others.

Which brings me to Apple. I want to talk about it using the relationship logic above because the debate is interesting and offer a lot of nuances.

Apple vs Facebook

Facebook’s main business is to sell ads. To be able to help advertisers sell personalized ads, Facebook needs to track users. In the past, Apple allowed Facebook as well as other apps to track users through Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA), which is unique for every device even though users’ identity isn’t disclosed. A few months ago, Apple announced its plan to stop the practice with the launch of iOS14. Specifically, advertisers now have to ask users’ permission to continue to track them across different apps and users have the choice to grant or decline that request. Facebook attacked Apple for being a monopolist and anti-competitive practices. Some said that Apple’s action was self-serving and hypocritical because it is building its own ads machine and it’s likely that Apple’s own ads engine isn’t subject to Apple’s rules as others. Apple critics piled on the criticisms by saying that Apple wields too much power and impedes the growth of the future Internet. Let’s unpack then by looking at the relationship between consumers, Apple, Facebook and other parties.

Facebook has a relationship with its users through its portfolio apps such as the Blue App, Whatsapp, Messenger or Instagram. Advertisers that want to reach the users on those platforms have to adhere to Facebook’s rules and guidelines because they are leveraging a relationship that is not theirs. Obviously, I don’t imagine Facebook would be happy if advertisers wanted to dictate how the relationship should be. After all, they own the closest relationship with their users.

Unfortunately for Facebook, in the case of Facebook users on iOS platforms, they aren’t necessarily the one that owns the closest relationship. Apple does. Hence, using the same logic laid out above, Facebook has to adhere to Apple’s rules and guidelines, in the same way that advertisers have to listen to Facebook. When Apple changed the rules to make cross-app tracking more challenging because they want to bolster their own relationship with their consumers, who is Facebook to say what Apple should or should not do? Would they be happy if advertisers wanted to dictate ads rates with them on their ads platforms?

The same goes with app developers who want to reach out to millions of iOS users. If Apple doesn’t want to have certain apps on their App Store (Overtly sexual or pornographic material/ Realistic portrayals of people or animals being killed, maimed, tortured, or abused, or content that encourages violence / Depictions that encourage illegal or reckless use of weapons and dangerous objects) or if they want to remove Parler in the aftermath of the insurrection on the 6th of Jan 2021 because that’s how they want the relationship to be (for good reasons), they should be within their rights to do so. If they want to charge commission on certain apps to be in the App Store, that’s their rights as well.

Companies love to lock in customers with exclusive service or products that grant them exclusive rights. That makes sense. If you spend money and resources to cultivate that relationship, you should reap your rewards. The same should for Apple. It spends money and resources on building and maintaining not only the App Store, but also hardware and software, why should it not be able to dictate their own relationship with iOS users?

But Apple wields too much power!

Indeed they do. There are currently more than 1.5 billion Apple devices in circulation, 1 billion of which are iPhones. In the US, about 60% of mobile devices are iPhones. That’s extraordinary power that one company possesses. It’s a legitimate concern that a company should not have that much power, especially given the tight grip that the company has on its proprietary hardware and software. However, it’s worth noting that Apple is in this position today because of their own efforts and the lack of competition. Which of its competitors can offer the same integration of services, hardware and software? Amazon is legendary in devotion to customer services, but they aren’t great at mobile production or software. Google owns Android, but they haven’t been great at hardware or customer services. Samsung manufactures phones, but they do not own Android. Hence, it’s not entirely fair to blame it all on Apple. If there is no challenger that can offer the same benefits to drive the end users from the relationship with Apple, it’s hardly 100% Apple’s fault that it happens, is it?

But Apple impedes innovation!

When we look at the fact that there are 1.5 billion Apple devices in circulation, the company can be bottleneck that impedes innovation. I am no app developer, but I can imagine the scenario that developers complain the tools Apple forces them to use aren’t advanced enough to let them do what they want. If that’s the case in reality, it’s a legitimate concern. But if Android were that much better at fostering innovation, why are we still in this situation, given that Android has a bigger market share than iOS globally? Why do we debate on the power of Apple, and not of Samsung or other phone manufacturers? As I imagine, if the operating system were so innovative that users would have no choice but to flock to Android devices, Apple wouldn’t have the power that they have today. In essence, while this can be a legit concern, there isn’t much proof of that.

Imagine that you are in a relationship and someone comes and tells you: well you know, the person you are dating with is what stops you from even better days and more happiness in the future. I mean, that can happen, but you kinda need some proof.

But their privacy policies are self-serving!

Which companies don’t act in their own interest? Even when companies try to uphold their corporate social responsibilities, they try to align them with their P&L and finance. If an environmentally-friendly initiative could make Apple look better, but present a $20 billion hit to their bottom line, I don’t think you would see them take it up. In this case, does it matter whether Apple implements the new privacy policy out of concern for their users or as groundwork for their ads business? Yes, it’s hypocritical if Apple wants to grow their ads business and claims the new policy is for the end users, but doesn’t every company do so? If Apple admitted to doing it for their ads business, would critics be happier? If any other company but Apple did this, would critics voice the same opinion?

But Apple doesn’t apply their own policies consistently and to their own apps!

I do agree that Apple can do better both in applying their rules consistently and in showing whether their own apps are subject to the same rules. With the regard to the first part, Apple does have a relationship with app developers, even though when it comes to shove, the relationship with the end users allows Apple to wield more bargaining power. Nonetheless, it is important for the company to foster the bond with developers. One way to do so is to be more transparent with the App Store guidelines, especially in its actions, and more consistent in their application of these guidelines.

Disclosing the extent to which their own apps are subject to the same App Store rules is a bit more nuanced in my opinion. I don’t think it would change anything if Apple told us Apple’s digital content or subscriptions were subject to the same 15%/30% commission rule. After all, Apple would pay that money back to themselves. If their overall business continues to grow and their margin stays flat like it has for the past few years, does it really matter if a few of their services are unprofitable or not? With that being said, I really think Apple should subject themselves to the guidelines that other apps are and show it to developers. It’s fair to do so and it will help build the relationship with developers. Indeed, pre-loading their own apps such as Apple Music gives it more advantage over Spotify. But as long as Apple doesn’t outright block Spotify or do anything that prevents their competitors’ apps from being downloaded for no reasons, it’s not an egregious abuse of power. That’s just Spotify being subject to the rules of Apple when leveraging the relationship with iOS users.

In sum, Apple is at the peak of their power and having the best relationship ever with users, a relationship that involves other parties such as app developers. The company invests a lot of resources into cultivating the relationship with both end users and app developers. As long as the former is strong (apparently it is now given its strong financial results), it gives Apple enormous bargaining power over anyone who wants to leverage such a relationship. To reduce Apple’s power, the most logical way is to weaken the bond they have with the end users by offering a better alternative, though it’s by no means an easy ask.

In my opinion, relationships with customers become more difficult to maintain over time. Customer preferences change. Old competitors compete harder. New competitors come in to disrupt. Regulations can be detrimental. Culture and leadership can weaken over time. Freak events like Covid-19 can happen. All sorts of problems to tackle. A strong position today doesn’t warrant a strong position in the future. The same applies to Apple. If they labor to maintain their competitive advantages in the future, kudos to them and we should be as generous in our appreciation for such an achievement as in our effort to criticize them and to keep them honest.

Disclosure: I own Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Spotify stocks in my portfolio.

Bezos is stepping down and Amazon is in a great shape

Arguably few have made headlines this week more than Jeff Bezos, the founder and current CEO of Amazon. The company announced yesterday that Bezos was stepping down in Q3 this year and is going to be replaced by Andy Jassy, the boss of AWS. While it is surprising, I hardly find the news shocking. Bezos hasn’t been on the company’s earnings calls for years. He appeared in front of Congress last year, showing that he didn’t know in details the company that he founded and is still running. To be clear, I don’t blame him. If he doesn’t spend much time in the office yet rather spends it on other projects that interest him and the company still does exceptionally well, why not? In his letter to the whole company, Bezos said:

I’m excited to announce that this Q3 I’ll transition to Executive Chair of the Amazon Board and Andy Jassy will become CEO. In the Exec Chair role, I intend to focus my energies and attention on new products and early initiatives.

As much as I still tap dance into the office, I’m excited about this transition. Millions of customers depend on us for our services, and more than a million employees depend on us for their livelihoods. Being the CEO of Amazon is a deep responsibility, and it’s consuming. When you have a responsibility like that, it’s hard to put attention on anything else. As Exec Chair I will stay engaged in important Amazon initiatives but also have the time and energy I need to focus on the Day 1 Fund, the Bezos Earth Fund, Blue Origin, The Washington Post, and my other passions. I’ve never had more energy, and this isn’t about retiring. I’m super passionate about the impact I think these organizations can have.

Source: Amazon

If you’re more interested in the strategic direction of the company and side projects, why not giving opportunity to someone else who is hungry for the top job and to manage the day-to-day operation. Plus, I don’t imagine he enjoyed being called to testify in front of Congress, especially when the regulatory scrutiny on big tech companies has intensified. And I think Amazon is in a great shape to continue to grow with the new CEO. Here is why:

Amazon recorded $125 billion in sales in Q4 FY2020, making its four-quarter rolling average revenue now almost $100 billion. For Q1 FY2021, Amazon’s guidance is to generate between $100 and $106 billion in revenue. More impressively, the quarterly revenue grew at least 37% YoY each. In terms of major business segments, North America is still the biggest piece of the pie, yet it still outgrows International and AWS. The latter is now a $45 billion run-rate business. Looking deeper at the business lines, Online Stores, 3rd Party Marketplace and AWS are still the three biggest, but the fastest growing is Advertising, which stands at the run rate of $21 billion. In terms profitability, Amazon used to run in the red with International. Not any more. International has been profitable for the last 3 consecutive quarters, making all three major business segments of Amazon profitable.

Furthermore, Amazon in Q4 FY2020 posted $31 billion free cash flow TTM, which is only slightly less than 50% of their operating cash flow TTM. It implies a heavy CAPEX back into the business. Also, Amazon, on average, spends about $15 billion a quarter on shipping costs, which constitutes around 23% of the combined sales of its Online Stores and 3rd Party Marketplace. While it’s a lot of money, if it helps Amazon achieve great services and customer satisfaction in multiple markets, it will be a tough challenge for anyone who wants to compete with them.

In my view, the results that Amazon boasted are nothing, but highly impressive. The company has a stellar reputation with consumers and owns the relationship. That’s why it can sell advertising, subscriptions, its own goods and goods of other parties. There are still a lot of room to grow. Not only can it still gain market share in the retail market in the US, but it can also expand internationally into more countries and continue its current profitability overseas. AWS can still grow, especially when Covid-109 has spurred companies to become digital. The brand, the scale and the infrastructure that Amazon put in place are gigantic advantages that aren’t easy for challengers to overcome. The culture that Bezos has instilled in the last 27 years is still there and even though he is passing the CEO torch, he is still around to take actions, if necessary.

Amazon's revenue and YoY growth
Figure 1 – Amazon’s 4-quarter rolling average in Revenue and quarter YoY Growth
Amazon Business Segments' Revenue
Figure 2 – Amazon’s Business Segments’ Revenue
Amazon's business segments' revenue
Figure 3 – Segment Revenue
Amazon's Operating Margin
Figure 4 – Amazon’s Operating Margin
Figure 5 - Amazon's Free Cash Flow TTM
Figure 5 – Amazon’s Free Cash Flow TTM
Amazon's Shipping Costs
Figure 6 – Amazon’s Shipping Costs